After 16 episodes of wondering how the war between the Saviors and the survivors — and the showdown between Rick and Negan — would end, it turns out the answer was hiding in plain sight all along. The title of this episode, “Wrath,” was only a partial fakeout, implying that Rick would kill his arch-nemesis. But it was simply the closing of a circle that began at the season’s start.
In the premiere, titled “Mercy,” Siddiq revealed his mom’s Koran-inspired mantra, “May my mercy prevail over my wrath.” Carl died while trying to help Siddiq honor her memory, and Carl’s death would have a major impact on both Negan and Rick. In the midseason premiere, we saw red-eyed Rick under a tree adorned with stained-glass panels, uttering a more definitive take on that line: “My mercy prevailed over my wrath.” Well, that’s exactly what happened: Rick could have killed Negan, but spared him instead. Even if you saw that coming, though, chances are you didn’t anticipate the dark turn taken by a trio of key characters. But it all raises a much bigger question: Is any of this enough to keep you watching into season nine and beyond?
Unfortunately, the episode’s first twist was foreshadowed by the “previously on The Walking Dead” scene which recalled Eugene inspecting Gabe’s faulty ammo. Everything seems to be going perfectly for Negan as he sends a few Saviors to their deaths just to plant more fake intel to lure Rick into his trap. Sure enough, Rick’s posse of MVPs ends up surrounded by armed Saviors. Negan’s got Gabe at gunpoint and revels in making Dwight — dressed in the Savior basic-bitch sweatsuit of shame — watch as his new friends get slaughtered. But the camera keeps cutting to Eugene. Something has to go wrong here. Could it be the bullets, even though Negan successfully tested them out?
Yep, it’s the bullets. All the Savior guns backfire, including Negan’s pistol. What could have changed Eugene’s mind, which seemed rather made up and quite anti-Rick? It was the moment when Rosita said he’d never done anything useful in his pathetic life. At the time, those harsh words seemed to deepen his dedication to the Saviors; instead, it somehow made Eugene realize that Rosita was correct, and his purpose was to save his old friends. It’s a big stretch, but at this point, logical leaps should not surprise (just like a lone walker in the road shouldn’t cause a car to swerve wildly to avoid hitting it — looking at you, Laura).
The forever-anticipated appearance of the Oceanside ladies — along with their squatter, Aaron — was another surprise that didn’t pack much of a punch. After two seasons of buildup regarding how they’d eventually come to the rescue, their big moment comes as they throw some Molotov cocktails at the Saviors who’ve raided Hilltop. If one of those fireballs landed wherever Gregory was being held, they would have truly been heroes. Alas, no such luck.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though: What really matters is how Rick deals with Negan. With a bloody busted hand, Negan runs for cover and ducks behind a tree — that very same tree with the stained-glass panels that we’ve seen Rick sitting beneath. Rick, of course, wasted his last bullets firing on Negan from a distance. So it’s hand-to-hand combat time, and Negan makes the classic villain mistake of talking trash rather than finishing the job. He’s got the upper hand (and Lucille), but Rick makes a plea: Give me ten seconds to explain how this can all end peacefully. This is when any bad guy worth his body count says, “Hard pass on the chitchat” and clubs the hero to death. But Rick is given time to repeat Carl’s vision for the future as the two sworn enemies stare deep into each other’s eyes and stand uncomfortably close. Rick looks teary. Even Negan gets misty.
That’s when Rick whips out a knife and slashes Negan across the throat with one swift stroke. “Look at what you did,” Negan gurgles. “Carl didn’t know a damn thing.” Gaping neck wounds tend to be of the lethal variety, especially on The Walking Dead, and as Rick dropped his bloody blade, it looks like he’s wondering yet again who he’s become — the guy who promised peace to the Saviors before slaughtering them, and is now letting his wrath prevail. But Rick has another surprise in store: He orders Siddiq to save Negan, who’s still clinging to life. He also delivers an inspiring speech to the Saviors who’ve surrendered: We’re all in this together now. It’s a new day. Just don’t think of stepping out of line or your ass will be kicked posthaste.
We last see Negan in bed at Hilltop with a bandage around his freshly stitched throat as Rick and Michonne explain the unique role he’ll play in building their “new world.” Carl imagined a future in which Judith and Negan were pals and the ex-Savior boss showed off his green thumb. Rick, however, has other plans — Negan will spend the rest of his life in a cell, a living symbol of the savage past they’re leaving behind for good. “You alive is gonna help show people that things have changed,” Rick says. Negan looks like he’s getting emotional again, perhaps thinking back to that moment when he gave Rick one last speech instead of making swift use of Lucille.
A few loose ends get (sort of) tied up in the aftermath. Morgan — who’s taking the advice of Jesus and using the pointy end of his staff for zombies only — decides he needs some time alone again. (Isn’t that how he ended up in a Looney Tunes hideout with all the walker traps?) Daryl continues the “mercy” theme and gives Dwight a truck instead of a crossbow bolt to the face; Dwight finds a happy ending at his old home, where there’s a note from Sherry directing him to wherever they had their honeymoon. And Jadis delivers the episode’s second biggest shocker: She’s coming to Hilltop and her real name is Anne!
But it’s Maggie who drops the biggest bomb. Rick’s change of heart regarding Negan sends her into hysterics, which makes good sense. (After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that her husband was butchered.) Back at Hilltop, she seemed to snap out of her fury rather quickly as she calmly listened to Nice Guy Savior thank her for giving him a new life. But as ominous music plays, she meets with Jesus for a shadowy postmortem. Rick did the right thing with the Saviors, she says, but he (and Michonne) made the wrong call with Negan. So they’re going to “bide their time” and then “show him” the error of his ways. Out of the darkness steps Daryl, who growls in agreement.
This raises plenty of questions. Is Maggie breaking bad? Will this rift lead to a coup and ultimately turn the survivors against each other? Will she simply kill Negan, or does she have something more nefarious in store for Rick and Michonne? Will Negan remain stashed in a cell, out of sight and out of mind, or will he continue to play a significant role on the show next season? Is it too late to pause all the mercy stuff and kill Gregory?
As Morgan said and the show has repeatedly made clear, everything is about people — zombies are an ever-present danger, but the real existential threats are always human. That mega-herd of walkers in the distance will be a problem. Maggie’s dark turn should be an even bigger concern, though, as it looks like the Widow Rhee might end up as a big bad rather than a hero.
Let’s also take a moment to look at the bigger picture. The Saviors story line proved that TWD is stuck in a rut — encounter an enemy, defeat the enemy, kill some walkers along the way, repeat. No one wants to see the survivors live too comfortably; this can’t become a soap opera with an occasional zombie cameo, Dynasty with the undead. But how much badder can the big bads get? We’ve seen cannibals, would-be child rapists, murderers, and two larger-than-life leaders in the Guv and Negan. I’d be surprised if Maggie goes full evil, but that would be an interesting twist, as least. Otherwise, what is left for a show that’s far too predictable in its fundamental conceit?
Here’s one unsolicited solution: Shake things up radically. Let the “Maggie versus Rick” story line play out next season. Show the survivors making real progress toward creating a functional new society with help from Georgie’s crew, that Key to the Future book, and whoever the hell is piloting that damn helicopter. Then end the season with a major time jump, say, five years into the future. All the progress they’ve made is gone. Only a few core characters are still alive. Life is worse than ever. Slowly reveal what caused everything to unravel, introduce new survivors, and start over from close to scratch.
I’m sure there’s a better idea for how to breathe new life into this series. But sticking to the same general script, with no finite end in sight, isn’t the answer.